Having a French person in your home will give any other nationality but the Italians food performance anxiety.
Even countries with a rich culinary tradition and prodigious cuisine like Portugal tend to feel a little insecure. But when your French friend happens to be vegan and the type who is allergic to some common ingredients, the mere thought of feeding them means panic.
How can you, as a host, ensure that this fellow creature with otherworldly eating habits survives and perchance thrives by your side?
This is the conundrum my friends in the Netherlands have been dealing with for months now while remaining keen to surprise me with food that won’t hurt. They quickly understood that part of the plan would always have to involve a preemptive 8-pack of toilet rolls.
This is wise. Since vegan food is exclusively plant-based it is rich in fiber, which is why you feel full for longer. Fiber is also the magic element that keeps digestion ticking over and things moving; vegans are very regular folks.
And yet, our eating choices are often mistaken for nutritional masochism carrying a high risk of malnutrition. “Where do you get your protein from?” is the most common question we get although almost every food contains some, from broccoli to nuts via tofu and nutritional yeast.
To compensate, well-meaning omnivores will often overfeed vegans, hence the need for extra bathroom supplies.
Had “veggie meat night” been omnivorous, I would have ended up with a farmyard on a plate.
Instead, I was presented with a heap of seasoned TVP (in this case soy-based textured vegetable protein) that could easily have fed four to six people. A misunderstanding arose after my friends asked how hungry I was and then proceeded to double quantities without having the intention of partaking in my vegetal feast.
Appetite and French pride demanded I rise to the challenge of having it all because I was hungry, it was delicious, and food is very much a love language. Even though they’re not from France, my friends speak it as fluently as I do. And veggie meat was so filling it felt and still feels, over 12 hours later, as if I had chomped on an entire field.
We had to laugh at the communication breakdown that led to them preparing such a large amount of food but discomfort soon set in. Laughing while your stomach attempts to digest an inordinate amount of bean-based foodstuffs is daring. So daring I had to warn my friends that the more jokes they cracked, the higher the stakes for me to maintain their olfactory comfort.
For every keto fan who empties their bowel once a week, there’s a vegan beating you to the bathroom several times a day, fertilizing the planet. Yes, humanure is a thing and no, the proceeds of my food enjoyment aren’t for sale although there’s much money to be made with fecal transplants.
Put it that way, plant-based eating isn’t for those who aren’t self-aware, comfortable with how the human body works, or humorless.
Whatever our dietary choices, we’re all particular eaters.
Particular doesn’t mean difficult but discerning, at least in Europe. On this continent, many things that are routinely consumed in the US do not register as foods; EU standards don’t always allow them in either.
Spray cheese is unfathomable, and this morning I had to explain the concept of the frosted toaster pastry many eat in lieu of food at breakfast.
“It’s an American thing, right?” was the resigned reply. We failed to find a common frame of reference to unpack what intellectual process might have led to the creation of such a thing. We did however ponder potential enjoyment at length but ended up with one question rather than a conclusion.
Why indeed do we eat what we eat, why do we enjoy what we enjoy? And why are so many of us digging our own graves with our teeth by refusing to educate ourselves about the basics of nutrition and human health?
Greed — both as hunger and profit — and culture have a lot to answer for.
How can humans ever become parents before they’ve even mastered cooking a meal for example? Do they think babies live off foods that come exclusively in tiny glass jars or in powder format? And frozen rectangular packages when they grow up? Are you even able to survive without ready-made food? If not, how will you ensure the survival of your offspring?
Alas, incuriosity begets helplessness; helplessness can beget ignorance.
And ignorance then becomes a public health hazard that unlocks new markets and business opportunities. Giving the unquestioning new conditions and epidemics to hide behind is the best way to sell them a solution.
And transform their disempowerment and sickness into hard cash, something questioning omnivores understand.
My omnivorous friends try and find me vegan treats; I try and find them vegan treats they might enjoy.
Or good cheese or cured meats because no matter how often our respective dietary choices might intersect, they do differ. And I respect theirs as much as they respect mine.
Because we’re all particular eaters, we often end up with peculiar food stuffs to stare at, things we could technically all share yet dare not consume.
Like a bright pink marzipan flamingo that no one has touched yet on account of the eye-watering number of strange ingredients involved in making it. Decoding all those E-numbers calls for search engine assistance. And it might be disappointing to discover some of the bird’s splendid colors do not come from beetroot but a fellow creature.
Which doesn’t mean it isn’t delicious, it may well be but I’m not going to lick off lac beetle polymer — E904 — to find out.
All humans need to eat to live so we might as well enjoy it; this notion isn’t just prevalent in Europe but universal.
How we go about putting it into practice differs around the world; for example, Europeans focus on quality rather than quantity. Tradition and local craftsmanship still matter in food manufacturing and we have a system of quality labels to protect them.
And health is always a concern, which is why many US foodstuffs and even personal hygiene products are banned in the EU.
Europeans love to eat but not in a nihilistic, self-destructive fashion as Americans do by always supersizing meals, a phenomenon that foxes me to this day. Despite having become an American and spending six years in the US, I still don’t get it.
If the way to a human’s heart is through their stomach, the stomach should always seek to take care of the heart by avoiding foods that could endanger it.
As with everything else in life, food all comes down to love and the duty of care we have toward ourselves and one another.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.